In pursuit of the lava flow in Iceland
I made the careful call.
On the way back, the visibility was so bad that I almost got lost on the ridge. If it hadn’t been for the stakes, I would have wandered in the opposite direction of my car. By the time I got back to the lot, around 11 a.m. afternoon., the rain was falling horizontally, twice as heavy as before, and it was so dark that, for the first time since arriving in Iceland, I saw a pair of headlights on the nearby road. Four people walked to the trailhead, took about twenty paces from their vehicle, then rushed back, jumped in and ran away. My ears were ringing, as if I had attended a death metal concert. However, even as I struggled to keep my rental car from being blown by the road all the way to Reykjavík, I kept wondering if I had made the right decision at the bottom of Goggle Hill to take a half-turn. tower.
On May 30, Grettisson, Bicnick and I arrived at the parking lot at 7 afternoon Although Grettisson disagreed, Bicnick decided it was still too windy to use his drone to record footage. We walked through the Nátthagi Valley, taking a route I had never taken before. The lava field threatened the surrounding landscape like a suspended tsunami. A search and rescue officer on a four-wheeled vehicle began to surround us as if we were sheep he needed to guard. It’s not safe to be here, he said in Icelandic, pointing to the lava. Then he sped off.
We hiked a steep incline out of the valley. I charged forward, to minimize the duration of my suffering, but Grettisson warned: “You will tire yourself.” Clearly I had not learned to walk like an Icelandic. We hung on to see the lava tsunami from above. Bicnick estimated that in five days he had barely moved, perhaps 150 to 200 feet. The search and rescue officer’s concern, we all agreed, seemed excessive.
A lot of people were out, and the collective atmosphere was relaxed, the scene more like, in its variety, what Björnsdóttir, the novelist, had described to me on her two trips: “Some are dressed as if they were were going to the Himalayas. Others just went out in slippers.
Grettisson was spotted almost immediately. “I really like your videos!” said a young man. “I looked at them all before I came.”
The first sign that something important had changed at the crater level should have been the fact that people were walking on a hill that the path did not even lead to. Why would anyone bother to climb it, when Goggle Hill was clearly the best vantage point?
Then I saw the yellow ribbon stretch across the land bridge that led to Goggle Hill Ridge. It marked the exact spot where I had turned around the night before. Apparently the lava level was getting so high that molten rock could sink over the land bridge at any time, cutting Goggle Hill and blocking anyone caught on the wrong side.
I was so overcome with grief that it was difficult for me to breathe. I kept saying to Grettisson, or to myself, “I can’t believe this.” But what could I not believe? Has this lava moved unpredictably? When I spoke to Lev, she called her job “a guessing game, but an informed guessing game.”
Grettisson said to me: “You are so hard on yourself. He found my disappointment mystifying, which was fair enough. But he had been watching this landscape change for the past two months, and to him the fact that another access point had disappeared hardly seemed hopeless. Icelanders have a word for Goggle Hill’s transitional state: óbrynnishólmi. Grettisson defined it as “a place newly surrounded by lava, a place which has not yet burned”.
“When Art and I were circling in the valley,” he recalls, pointing to the lava that now filled it, “I said, ‘We’re the last to stand on this land.’ “
We walked to the new point of view. Would Icelanders start to call this place Gónhóll? Guðmundur Ragnar Einarsson, the member of the family association that owns the land around Fagradalsfjall, told me that during the early days of the eruption he argued with Grindavík officials over naming rights . He had wanted to name the first crater for his best friend from kindergarten, who had just died. “But now it’s below,” he told me – meaning the crater had since been subsumed by lava – “no one wants to name it anymore. “
The lava field was as active as I had seen it. A giant, flaming puddle opened up below us. But it didn’t just widen, sparks, stop and harden: it acted more like a wave, devouring more and more of the black shore it crashed into. The lava grew and crawled over the existing crust, and it kept coming until it hit the slope, setting off moss fires that flared up, then quickly went out. The heat was unbearable. We backed off.
“I’ve never seen lava behave like this,” Grettisson said. Instead of the taffy churning of three nights ago, this lava was liquid. He accelerated quickly, even on level ground. No wonder the search and rescue officer who stopped us was so worried.
I put pieces of glassy, olive-black tephra in my pocket. Without the wind, they had turned from ammunition into memories. The ancient Gónhóll, once a sturdy lava vessel, now looked like the overturned hull of a sinking ship. For the first time, it was hard not to feel that something was definitely ending, rather than ending and starting. Gónhóll, I realized, sounded like Gone Hill.
Grettisson and I watched the lava surge towards the land bridge, as if it were a sandbar and we waited for a rising tide to cover it. We bet on when it would cross over and merge with the lava field on the other side. My eyes kept crying, and it had nothing to do with gas. The rash was growing too fast. Day after day he was pushing people away or forcing them to find new ways to reach him. The rash wasn’t behaving badly, it just needed more space. I had spent pandemic containment watching my two children grow a little closer to adulthood. So much can happen in a day. The sadness I felt at the inability to return to Gónhóll – which was surrounded by the rising lava, slowly becoming part of the earth’s geological subconscious – seemed related to the physical and emotional restrictions that had arisen, sometimes from the overnight, between my children and me. . brynnishólmi applied to humans, too.
Lev, the volcanologist, pointed out to me that most active volcanoes are so remote, or so dangerous, that they prevent occasional visits. The Fagradalsfjall eruption was unique, she said: “We will never have this kind of access anywhere, anywhere else.” And yet, this access itself would ultimately be inaccessible. When I later described to her how surprised I had been at the prospect of lava erasing the land bridge, she replied, “But that was the lowest point. It was planned. Everything was expected. Yet it was difficult, as a human being or as a scientist, to know precisely when the pain of loss would strike, when the heat would erupt and push you away – when the last time was really the last.